Clinical Insights

Leveraging the microbiome to enhance cancer treatment



Research suggests certain gut bacteria can reduce the efficacy of radiotherapy against cancers, but targeting those bacteria with vancomycin can reverse this effect.

Dr. Alan P. Lyss, now retired, was a community-based medical oncologist and clinical researcher for more than 35 years, practicing in St. Louis.

Dr. Alan P. Lyss

Andrea Facciabene, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and colleagues conducted a preclinical study in which vancomycin enhanced the efficacy of radiotherapy against melanoma and lung cancer. Now, researchers are conducting a clinical trial to determine if vancomycin can have the same effect in patients with non–small cell lung cancer.

Dr. Facciabene reviewed this research at the AACR Virtual Special Conference: Radiation Science and Medicine.

According to Dr. Facciabene, “gut microbiota” includes the more than 1,000 different strains of bacteria living in human intestines. He indicated that the average human has 10 times more bacteria than cells in the body and 150 times more genes in the gut microbiome than in the human genome.

In healthy individuals, the gut microbiota play a key role in intestinal function and digestive processes, modulation of hormones and vitamin secretion, energy extraction from food, and development and maintenance of a balanced immune system.

“Dysbiosis” is the term applied to a change in the composition, diversity, or metabolites of the microbiome from a healthy pattern to one associated with disease. Antibiotic therapy is a classic cause of dysbiosis, and dysbiosis has been implicated in a variety of inflammatory diseases.

The mechanisms by which the gut microbiome could influence systemic immunity is not known but is relevant to cancer therapy response. Augmenting the frequency and durability of response to immune-targeted treatments – potentially by manipulating the influence of gut microbiota on the immune system – could be highly impactful.

Gut microbiota and radiation-induced cell death

Immunogenic cell death – a process by which tumors die and release their intracellular molecular contents – is one of the mechanisms by which radiotherapy kills cancer cells.

Tumor cells succumbing to immunogenic cell death stimulate antigen presenting cells, such as dendritic cells, that engulf tumor antigens and cross-present them to CD8+ cytotoxic T lymphocytes. This process culminates in the generation of a specific immune response capable of killing the malignant cells in the irradiated area, but it also impacts distant nonirradiated tumors – an abscopal effect.

Dr. Facciabene and colleagues hypothesized that alterations of the gut microbiota could have an impact on the effect of radiotherapy. To investigate this, they studied mouse models of melanoma.

The team allowed B16-OVA tumors to grow for 9-12 days, then delivered a single dose of radiotherapy (21 Gy) to one – but not all – tumors. Simultaneously with the delivery of radiotherapy, the investigators started some animals on oral vancomycin. The team chose vancomycin because its effects are localized and impact the gut microbiota directly, without any known systemic effects.

Results showed that vancomycin significantly augmented the impact of radiotherapy in the irradiated area and was associated with regression of remote tumors.

The effects of the combination treatment on tumor volume were significantly greater than the effects of either treatment alone. Since manipulation of the gut microbiome potentiated radiotherapy effects both locally and distantly, the investigators concluded that immunogenic cell death may be involved in both the local and abscopal effects of radiotherapy.

When the experiment was repeated with a lung tumor model, similar findings were observed.


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